The recent announcement by the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) that Mathematics and Physics will no longer be mandatory for eligibility to get a spot in engineering undergraduate programmes came as a bolt from the blue. These two subjects have been added to a list of 12 optional subjects, in three of which the student should have scored more than 45% to become eligible.
The announcement received immediate pushback from many quarters, including senior scientists who expressed concern that this move was in the wrong direction.
The first question that comes to mind upon hearing such rules is how such decisions are reached. Who is consulted? I do not recall any public debate or consultation related to this issue. The apparent trigger for such a decision seems to have come from representations made by "industry as well as student community to give an option to pursue technical courses such as agricultural engineering, biotechnology, information technology, electronics to students who did not have prior electives of Physics and Maths at class-level but had studied relevant portions of the same to a certain desired extent." AICTE also stated that whether to implement this or not was up to individual institutions, and that impacted students could make up for this deficit by taking bridge courses (that would connect whatever little Mathematics and Physics they actually studied with what was needed in the engineering curricula).
One might agree that there may be a few pathways in engineering that could avoid significant Mathematics and Physics, but an entire programme of study is not designed for these few possibilities. Both subjects are a part of the foundational core of engineering that everyone must learn. Understanding of natural phenomena requires a background in Physics which is usually expressed in the language of Mathematics. The "laws" that govern mechanical devices, electrical and magnetic equipment and the quantum world of atoms are all expressed in terms of mathematical equations.
In this context, bridge courses are likely to produce a cohort of students who will mostly be "second-class citizens" among the rest of the "mainstream" students much better versed in Mathematics and Physics. Such a cohort will always need specially-designed courses, at every stage that focus on the qualitative and minimize the quantitative. It is also very likely that upon graduation, this group will face discrimination, as also fewer opportunities in employment and in admission to higher studies. Many will proclaim, "So this person is from the no Math-Physics group"! It is of course possible to have several choices within the college - after admission - in terms of opting for routine or advanced Mathematics, specialized Physics or Chemistry courses. However, providing the option to skip Mathematics and Physics at the entrance-level is tantamount to removing essential pillars from the foundation.
It is worth reflecting whether institutions who can barely run half-decent undergraduate programmes in engineering will have the creativity and the ability to simultaneously conduct such parallel streams. I also wonder what institution heads and faculty will have to say about the burdens and consequences of such a policy decision.
The second issue that is striking is the discourse emanating from AICTE. This shows an unthinking eagerness to somehow "align" with the New Education Policy (NEP) in terms of paying obeisance to notions of a liberal education, flexibility in choosing courses and diversity in the groups of college-entering students. This is an abuse of the meaning of the words "liberal" and "diversity". Liberal does not imply that a student can choose any course arbitrarily. Every liberal undergraduate programme has a planned sequence of courses. A student follows a plan and an overall theme - yes, even flexibility has a plan. There are prerequisite courses to be cleared before enrolling for some higher courses. A large majority of courses in engineering would require some kind of Mathematics taught at the school-exiting level.
Thirdly, the idea of making Mathematics and Physics optional for admission to engineering studies stems from a very simplistic, "craft-only" (popular?) view of what engineering is. An engineer is not a technician or a craftsman even though s/he may need to know enough about "hands on" practices. An electrician is not an electrical engineer, nor is a farmer an agricultural engineer, though the former must know about electrical wiring, meters and switches, and the latter must be familiar with agricultural patterns, crops, fertilizers and irrigation techniques. A rigorous engineering curriculum deals with a very significant amount of natural sciences expressed mostly in mathematical forms. This is much more true for degree programmes than diploma-awarding programmes which focus more sharply on the "practice" part than the "theory". It is therefore even more surprising that a body like AICTE which is deeply involved in making engineering curricula should reflect such a simplistic worldview about engineering education.
When engineering, as a profession, evolved from the guilds of the various crafts, it was in no small measure due to the related Science and Mathematics getting internalized through the professional education often organized by the guilds themselves. Socially, the emergence of engineering professions was driven by the rise of industrial capitalism and the "freeing" of individuals from the authority of the guilds; intellectually, it was driven by the capacity of the craftsmen to compute, design and ultimately generalize and abstract their professional work - all of this needed Mathematics, Physics and, in some instances, Chemistry. The design of artefacts evolved from being a matter of trial and error to that of mathematical calculation and an understanding drawn from "natural philosophy".
Modern engineering studies have seen an increasing use of Mathematics and the natural sciences which have lent the profession unprecedented precision, leading to tight and optimal designs. In most disciplines, this has happened to the extent that many of them have almost been "renamed" as engineering sciences. The important shift here is that many engineering principles are now based on the actual mechanisms of causation (the physics) rather than correlations based on empirical, experimental data alone (practical experience). Physics and Mathematics have enabled quantitative theorizing which allows for non-obvious predictions. This is essential for any fundamental or applied breakthrough in our understanding of natural phenomenon. Today, Engineering Mathematics stands as a subject in its own right and it can indeed get quite sophisticated. Leadership, competence and creativity in engineering are intrinsically linked to this "core" competency.
It is tragic that these attempts to avoid Mathematics and Physics come at a time when their application is becoming ubiquitous in Biology and the Life Sciences. Subjects such as Computational Biology, Bioinformatics, Biomedical Engineering as well as Biotechnology demonstrate how Mathematics and the physical sciences are the vehicle that enables cross-disciplinary education and research. Biology has now been added to the classical core triumvirate of Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics (PCM), and has moved beyond being a purely descriptive discipline to an increasingly quantitative one. For instance, it may come as a surprise to many that modern vaccines are developed using mathematical models in a big way.
The tragedy deepens that such recommendations are being made in the age of Artificial Intelligence. Rather than encourage the popular trope of "mathematics and science are so difficult", we should create school curricula that will make our children like these subjects. This waiver of Mathematics and Physics is probably to "adjust" for the pathetic state of our high (and middle) school learning of Mathematics and Science-related subjects. The answer cannot be just to waive the problem away.
AICTE should worry more about why third rate engineering colleges still exist, why so many seats in engineering institutions are going unfilled, and why so many incompetent graduates are pouring into an ever-shrinking job market. The solutions to these issues are a prerequisite to an Aatmnirbhar Bharat.
(Anurag Mehra is a Professor of Chemical Engineering and Associate Faculty at the Center for Policy Studies, at IIT Bombay.)
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